February 28, 2020

Nell Scovell on Surviving the Hollywood Boys’ Club

Nell Scovell is one of the few women who has managed to carve out a strong writing career in the male-dominated world of television. She created the series “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” and worked on such shows as “The Simpsons” and “NCIS.”

As a journalist, she’s contributed to Vanity Fair, Vogue and Rolling Stone. In March, she released a book about her experiences, titled, “Just the Funny Parts … And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking Into the Hollywood Boys’ Club.”

In a recent event at the Skirball Cultural Center, Scovell appeared alongside television writer, director and producer Greg Daniels (“The Office”) and late-night talk show host Conan O’Brien. The trio’s friendship dates to 1987, when they were all young, unknown writers on a short-lived variety show called “The Wilton North Report.”

Scovell told attendees about her stint as a high school sports reporter for The Boston Globe. Daniels talked about his gig as an SAT tutor. O’Brien recalled his time as a salesman at Wilson’s House of Suede & Leather.

When O’Brien complimented Scovell on her ability to craft jokes, Scovell said it was her father who trained her to come up with lines quickly. She cited her work compiling Top 10 lists for David Letterman and recalled one from the Top 10 Least Popular Summer Camps: “Camp Tick in beautiful Lyme, Connecticut.”

“My book ‘Just the Funny Parts’ could easily have been ‘Just the Angry and Bitter Parts,’ but that would have been an eight-volume set.” — Nell Scovell

The three also talked about the high failure rate of comedic ideas and the tenacity required to move from project to project.

“People only see the stuff that really works,” O’Brien said, “but to get there, you have to go through reams and reams of yellow pads of s— that never gets produced.”

Scovell said she felt the same way about her book. The title, “Just the Funny Parts” could easily have been “ ‘Just the Angry and Bitter Parts’,” she said, “but that would have been an eight-volume set.”

As only the second woman to write for David Letterman, Scovell took a bold step in 2009 when CBS News producer Robert Halderman discovered a diary that revealed Letterman had been having an affair with his assistant, Stephanie Birkitt. Halderman then attempted to blackmail Letterman.

In the wake of the scandal, Scovell wrote an article in Vanity Fair, calling out the lack of gender diversity in late-night TV writers’ rooms — and a hostile, sexually charged atmosphere at the Letterman show in particular. The piece inspired a cultural debate and eventually led to Scovell collaborating with Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg on the book “Lean In,” which created a worldwide movement. Sandberg wrote the foreword to Scovell’s book.

Scovell’s speaking out came almost eight years before the #MeToo movement, and in her book she notes how standing up really helped her find peace and purpose in life.

“Combining passion and mission is a clear path to happiness,” she writes in the book. “Nothing is more satisfying than having a positive impact on people’s lives. This realization also explains why I love writing jokes. On a much smaller scale, laughter is a sign of impact. That impact may be fleeting. … But for me, that moment is bliss.”

Mark Miller is a humorist and stand-up comic who has written for sitcoms. His first book is “500 Dates: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Online Dating Wars.”